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Why We Get Off on Being Afraid (And Why You Should Care)

Our world is full of attractions (especially at this time of year) whose sole purpose is to make us scared. We wander through haunted houses and allow theatre students in profuse make-up to jump at us from dark corners (while hoping they don’t steal our wallets). We stand in lines that last an eternity to ride the tallest and fastest of rollercoasters. We endure the most terrible writing and acting to see cheesy B-rate horror films. Why do we do this?

ScaredHAPPY HALLOWEEN THEATRE SUCKERS!

For this very seasonally appropriate blog post, I would like to present the question: “Why do we like to be afraid?”

Our world is full of attractions (especially at this time of year) whose sole purpose is to make us scared. We wander through haunted houses and allow theatre students in profuse make-up to jump at us from dark corners (while hoping they don’t steal our wallets). We stand in lines that last an eternity to ride the tallest and fastest of rollercoasters. We endure the most terrible writing and acting to see cheesy B-rate horror films. Why do we do this?

We do this because our bodies are responsive to external stimuli. The fast rollercoaster comes to a stop, the harness releases and we are left breathless. We exit the haunted house and have to sit down because our knees are weak. We are aroused in the truest sense of the word, adrenaline pumping through our bodies; neurotransmitters released from glands that cause us to change chemically and biologically.

Now for many, this arousal can manifest itself as sexual. There’s a very simple reason why we like to take our dates to a scary film. We sit, we watch, we hold our breath, we scream, we jump and next thing you know a harmony of slurping noises casually make its way into the soundtrack.

The “fight-or-flight” response triggered in our bodies through a release of hormones is an immediate throw-back to our primitive selves. It is a left-over piece of us that had to be ready to act simply to survive. In this moment, millions of years of evolution are cast aside. Our brains turn off and our bodies turn on. We are completely reactionary responding to external stimuli with heightened senses.

Of course, living in the civilized and cultured 20-teens where no one dies and no one needs to be afraid, we must create those moments of terror and panic mechanically. As entertainment, we simulate danger to instill fear. We pay for this type of entertainment over and over again, not because we necessarily want to be afraid, but because we want the adrenaline, we want the high. We are paying for a chemical fix that is produced by our own bodies, caused by external stimuli.

AND WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

If a cheesy horror film with terrible writing and acting can cause our bodies to change biologically, then shouldn’t we (talented and creative people as we are) be able to stimulate the same biological response in our audience? Can we arouse our audience by using appropriate external stimuli to cause the desired biological effect?

I believe the best theatre in the world can change its audience biologically. It can bring us to arousal, to heightened sensibilities; it can cause a communication with our primitive selves, reminding us that we are sentient animals with basic and primitive needs.

So, here is the dilemma: how do we arouse our audience without resorting to scare tactics that have become cliché in horror film production? What external stimuli can we present as actors, directors, designers, writers, dancers or producers that engage our audience in the same immediate way that fear does? How can we give our audiences the adrenaline rush that they clearly crave?

The great artist tries to answer this question with every performance, every design, and every line of text, every extension, gesture, and sigh. The audience is left breathless, their knees weak, and their hearts racing. Like a sorcerer, you have turned your audience into animals. Like a magician, you have stopped time. Like a god, you have created the world.


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Caleb McMullen

Written by Caleb McMullen

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheatreisforSuckers.com

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